I’ve been hard at work on my novel and haven’t been writing much in the way of essays these days. But at the end of February, I finished (ie Scotch taped, stapled, slapped together with string and a prayer) a draft of my novel, and since I’m taking a short break before I revise (and revise and revise), I decided to throw some essays out into the world. (That makes it sound super casual, and I’m not super casual about my writing.) Anyway, here they are.
And over at Motherwell, I wrote about my son Sam and what advanced mathematics has in common with novel-writing. You can read that one here.
I’m working on another, longer essay and then it’s back into the novel cave for at least a year. I’m super excited to be starting BookEnds this summer, a year-long program designed to help you bring your novel to completion in about twelve months.
I’m thrilled to have a new essay at Full Grown People today. It’s about a blanket my mother was making when she died that I don’t know how to finish. Every time I look at the unfinished blanket, I feel kind of sad and inadequate, like an unworthy link in my family story. Why didn’t my mother ever teach me how to crochet so I could finish the damn thing? I sat with the story for a long time, and it was only recently that I thought of the story (and the blanket) in a different way: as part of an immigrant narrative I so rarely assign to my mother. She *was* an immigrant (even though I never really thought of her as one) and, as in all immigrant stories, something always gets left behind.
I feel better about it now. I might not ever finish the blanket, but I have this essay. And that’s something.
“The blanket, still in pieces, sits in a bag in my attic. I take it down sometimes, run my fingers over the soft white cotton, yellow now with age. If I let my eyes blur, I can almost see my mother crocheting in front of the T.V., a cigarette and glass of white wine on the nightstand beside her. Her needle moves in a jerky, seemingly haphazard way, but when it stops, a delicate white hexagon appears. Later, she will crochet these hexagons together to create the piece of blanket I am holding now.”
I was thrilled when my friend Dina Relles asked me to be a part of Proximity Magazine’s feature, “Still, More, Writers at Work”, where writers talk about how their writing life is structured. My writing day is divided into two distinct parts: the quiet time when my family is at work or school and I am home alone, followed the abrupt return to reality when they all come back. The world of dinner, lunchboxes, permission slips, reading logs. I loved reading about the other writers featured here, how they fit their writing lives around other responsibilities like jobs, families, pets.
I was talking to a friend yesterday about a mutual friend who recently returned from a one-month writing residency. No wi-fi, no talking until dinner time, no interruptions– just hours and hours to write, write, write. It sounded amazing, I told my friend, something I wish I could do one day. But don’t you think interruptions are part of what makes writing work? my friend said. Having to get up and walk the dog or answer the door or pick up dinner? Doesn’t walking away from the page offer something important too, the way you always think of the perfect line when you’re in the shower or waiting at a red light? She’s right, of course. It reminded me of how I always walk away from a crossword puzzle when I’m stuck, and when I return, the answer appears as if by magic.
“My writing day is divided into two distinct parts: when my kids are at school and when they are home. When they are in school, I use the quiet hours to step into the world of my novel and try to find a path through. When they come home, I am pulled sharply back into the real world. The truth is, I probably could keep writing even after my kids come home—they are old enough now to have their own interests and responsibilities to keep them well occupied. I’m the one who finds it hard to stay focused when they are there, always finding excuses to insert myself into their flow. I like the dual nature of my days: the quiet, dream-like state I enter when I am writing in an empty house and then the welcome return to the real world.”
My latest essay is about Trump and the election, because what else is there to talk about?
But seriously folks, I wanted to understand why I took this one so hard (like a lot of people). When I dug down, I realized it had something to do with my body. Let’s just say that getting an IUD seemed like a fitting coda to the election of 2016.
It’s about anger and resistance and the things we bury that come screaming to the surface when we least expect it. I hope you enjoy it.
“I wish I could say that getting an IUD in the waning days of the Obama administration was an act of political resistance. It wasn’t.
My doctor had been suggesting one for a while so the timing was purely coincidental. However, it seemed fitting that I close up shop, reproductively speaking, in the days before Donald Trump’s inauguration.
It was also the day of Trump’s first press conference as president-elect. Before my appointment, I sat down in front of the television to watch, not on the sofa where I might have been comfortable but perched on the edge of an arm chair, ready to pounce, or run.”
Yesterday marked the end of my year-long Gurfein Fellowship at Sarah Lawrence College. Through the generosity of Kathryn Gurfein, I had the opportunity to work one-on-one with novelist and short story writer Marian Thurm.
I read from the first chapter of my novel-in-progress, A Last Innocent Year, to an audience that included friends and family. The novel tells the story of Isabel Rosen, a girl in her final semester at Wilder College who finds herself drawn into an affair with a married professor. Isabel, a working class Jewish girl from New York, has always been a fish out of water at Wilder, a small, conservative school tucked in the leafy hills of New Hampshire, but as the affair intensifies, the life she has created for herself begins to unravel. Set in 1995, My Last Innocent Year explores themes of class, creativity, gender, sexuality and power set in a specific historic moment, but also at a very personal moment of transition: the time just before you leave college and begin to imagine a place for yourself in the world.
Here is a short bit of what I read:
“Jason and I continued across campus, walking through deep trenches carved in the snow. The cold air swirled inside me, a strong breeze through a stuffy room, and I imagined it burning away the grit that had lodged there after two weeks in New York. Wilder College still felt like a miracle to me: the symmetrical white buildings that framed the campus green, the brick library with its tall clock tower. It was the kind of place that inspired nostalgia even while you were still there. When I was older, four years would zip by in a flash—I’d turn around and find I’d lived somewhere for six years and still feel like I’d just moved in—but it felt as though I’d been at Wilder forever. At 22, I hadn’t yet placed myself in perspective, that as college students we were always on our way out, the campus shedding students the way a snake sheds its skin: slowly but inexorably, the edges always moving out to make way for the new.”
The essay isn’t available online, but you can download a digital copy of the issue here. You can read a little bit about the story behind the essay here.
I told a version of this story at my mother’s memorial service in 2000. At the time, her death felt very much like a car crash: quick, unexpected and violent. My dear friend Peggy Tagliarino came up to me afterwards and urged me to write the story. And so I did.
Here’s a short excerpt:
“The summer I was 26, my mother and I traveled together to the south of France. She was spending a week at the vacation home of friends on the French Riviera and had invited me to tag along. I thought perhaps I was a bit too old to still vacation with my mother, but since I couldn’t afford to take a European trip on my own, I jumped at the invitation.
Being asked to spend a week at someone’s home in France was the kind of thing that happened to my mother and never h
appened to me. I had spent most of my life suspecting she was cooler than me—she was Swedish, spoke seven languages and was a successful fashion executive—but now the distinction seemed starker than ever. While I struggled with low-paying jobs, roommate dramas and small apartments, she was thriving. At 55, her marriage to my father over and my brother and I living on our own, she threw herself into her work and friends and traveled whenever she had the opportunity: white-water rafting in the Grand Canyon, biking through Eastern Europe, skiing in Utah. Her eclectic group of friends invited her everywhere, and I could understand why; she was affable, energetic and up for anything.”
My latest essay, on the link between memories and stuff, is up today at Motherwell.
(And if you’re not reading Motherwell yet, well, you should. You can follow them on Facebook or Instagram, or sign up for their newsletter here.)
Thanks for reading, commenting and sharing!
In my family, I am both the closet cleaner and the memory keeper, the one who decides what stays and what goes—Are we keeping this notebook? Can I toss this Barbie shoe? What are we doing about the Lego? And I’m good at it: I can whittle down a sock drawer or toy basket with the best of them. But I am also the person who remembers things, like which painting my daughter Ellie had in the first grade art show (the one of the flower vase) and where I’ve stored the gown both boys wore at their bris ceremonies (oh no, wait—now I remember only Sam wore it because when Oliver was born I couldn’t find it and he borrowed his cousin’s). At times, it is an uneasy alliance because while I am the one who tosses things—there are only so many science journals or Mother’s Day cards a person can save without ending up on Hoarders—I know that in the act of discarding, something else always gets lost.